Chihuly: Artistry in Fire on a Grand Scale

If an expert is one who has devoted 10,000 hours to his passion, I’m not sure what you’d call Dale Chihuly. Other than extraordinary.

Born in 1941, Chihuly has been working in glass for fifty years. He was one of the first graduates of the first fine arts glass program started at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by Harvey Littleton. Littleton is the man credited with starting the American Studio Glass Movement, taking the techniques of glassblowing beyond industrial applications and into artists’ studios.

And Chihuly has taken the Studio Glass Movement even further. He delights, as he says, in “pushing the medium as far as possible in terms of shape and scale.” Chihuly works on a huge scale, mounting ambitious architectural installations in museums, historic cities, and botanical gardens around the world. He works with a large team of people, a benefit he says he learned about when he was a young man blowing glass in one of Venice’s famous studios.

Learning to Blow Glass

Having seen Chihuly’s work in magazines and on television documentaries, I was eager to see it in person. I had my chance recently and went, not once but twice, to view his exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.Portion of multi-coloured glass ceiling by Chihuly

Chihuly encourages people to photograph his art so you can see it with me in this post and on his website. If you take any pleasure in glass or light or colour, I think you’ll have to agree that Chihuly’s work is magnificent. Perhaps, though, I’m a bit more rapturous about it than normal. A few years ago, in celebration of a big birthday, a friend and I had the opportunity to spend a day blowing glass under the tutelage of a glassblower trained at the Rhode Island School of Design. She was, it turns out, a graduate of the glass artist program that Dale Chihuly had started there some years earlier.

This three minute video offers an excellent demonstration of the basic process.

It was a great day.

I’ve never met a colour I didn’t like.

Dale Chihuly
Thanks to the direction and assistance of our instructor, my friend and I were able to produce a number of nice pieces. We also learned just how difficult it is to work with molten glass.

Glassblowing is NOT Easy

If you ever end up on the tv show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Chris Harrison might offer you a million dollars for telling him what is missing on a glassblower’s body. The answer is that a glassblower has no hair on his or her forearms. It’s burned off just by being close to the 2000+ degree furnace.wooden boat containing many different coloured glass balls by Dale Chihuly

Glassblowers have to be physically strong. Not only do you need to hold on to that long, heavy stainless steel pipe and not let it slump, you need to keep the pipe constantly turning or the glass will slump, falling off the pipe or giving you a shape you didn’t want.

If you spend too long shaping the molten glass, it often cools to the point where it is unworkable. You need to put it in a second furnace, called the glory hole, where you make it flexible enough to shape further.

Glass is made of sand along with various metals and metal oxides. Alumina, for example, makes glass more durable, and zinc oxide gives glass its brilliant shine. These additions help, but it’s still glass. There is always the risk of glass cracking and, worse, exploding.

Some of the additions to glass are toxic. If they become airborne, they can cause respiratory problems over time.

Controlling the colour in glass, if that’s something that matters to you, is very difficult to do. Colours come from adding different metal oxides to the molten glass. Silver, copper and manganese, in particular, vary widely in their final colours.

After the glass has been formed, it is put in a third furnace – a kiln called an annealer. If the glass cools too quickly, it can crystallize and lose its transparency while at the same time becoming extremely fragile.4x3 grid cabinet of Chihuly glass bowls for sale

Chihuly’s Artistic Contributions

Paperweights, vases, and bowls are some of the items that glass artists commonly make. Chihuly has the vases and bowls; if you have some significant spare cash, you can have one for your own. (The closest I got was his $20 weekly planner.)

But Chihuly’s big contributions to the field came about as the result of an accident. In 1976, on a visit to England, Dale Chihuly was in a serious car accident and lost his sight in one eye. That meant he also lost his depth perception, making it dangerous for him to work with molten glass.

Chihuly describes the months of recuperation as a transformative time, giving him the opportunity to think deeply about the direction he wanted to take his art. He became director of a large team of people which allowed him to indulge his love of architecture and design, pushing both the size and the complexity of the blown glass.

Over the years, Chihuly and his team have perfected the art of packing and transporting glass. Team members are the only ones who handle the glass at any point in the packing, shipping, installation, or takedown. They’ve proudly managed to get their record to less than 1% breakage. This 2 minute time-lapse film shows team members installing a glass chandelier.

The Chihuly Exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum

There were several major installations in the Royal Ontario Museum exhibit, as seen in this slideshow.

In addition to the large installations, Dale Chihuly experiments with the various ways in which glass can be joined. Threads and wraps can be laid in decorative patterns on the molten glass as it is being formed. Additional pieces of glass can be laminated on to a shape with either heat or adhesive. Shards can be melted in. And the natural properties of glass can, in the first two slides, be used to mimic the slumped, sagging forms of some Northwest Coast Indian baskets that Chihuly admired.

If you treat glass right, it doesn’t crack. If you know the properties, you can make things; the colour of dusk and night and love.

Cath Crowley

When artists ask Dale Chihuly for advice, he tells them, “Surround yourself with artists and see as much art as possible. Go with your gut and create something that nobody has ever seen before.” 

The Royal Ontario Museum exhibit ends on January 8th, 2017.

Chihuly talks a lot about light and colour. Which aspect of art is most captivating to you? Light, colour, texture, perspective, the medium used? Please share your response, or anything else you’d like to say about this post, in the comments below. 

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  1. I LOVED this post, Karen! It takes me back to my house in Milford Bay where my neighbor Simon Bisley had a glass blowing studio. He taught me a lot over the seven years I lived next to him. I still have three Friendship Balls that he gave me over the years. I could watch Simon for hours just fascinated at what he could do with molten glass.

    I envy you trying your hand at glass blowing. Simon had offered to teach me a bit but at the time I was too nervous to even try. I had visions in my head of burning like my hand or his shop and that kept me from taking the risk to try.

    The video showing the basics of glass blowing was absolutely amazing to watch. What I wouldn’t give to own a paperweight like that one…so beautiful, colorful and heavy looking. I can imagine the light play it would have in a sunny window

  2. I can feel your desire for the paperweight in your writing. It sounds to me like it’s something you’re going to have in your home. A beautiful object of light and colour, but also a great reminder to take chances and move beyond your fear. I’ll bet that if Simon made the same offer to you today, you’d jump at it!

    1. LOL, oh I will have one like that one day, you are right there! You are right too about jumping at the chance if it was offered now. I am in a much better place to take the challenge. I don’t have young children at home anymore and I am older and have more of a handle on the direction I want my life to go in. 🙂

  3. I really enjoyed watching the video; when I was in Los Cabos, Mexico, I visited a Glass Blowing Factory and saw the artists at work. Amazing!

    1. I agree, Karen. I love that the glass blowing process is fast enough that we can watch a piece of art develop from nothing to everything. It was only when you made your comment that I realized how rare that is in the art world. We see the finished results of paintings or sculptures, even collages, without ever having seen the process. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I go frequently to the ROM and I have never seen an exhibit I liked more than this. His imagination, his colors, his sheer daring are apparent in everything he does!

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